Haunting, Original, Rootsy Ethiopian Sounds from Dub Colossus

by delarue

Dub Colossus’ 2008 debut In a Town Called Addis was one of that year’s most original and enjoyable albums, a trippy blend of roots reggae and bracing 70s Ethiopian sounds. This blog didn’t yet exist at that point…and slept on the band’s follow-up, Addis Through the Looking Glass, when that one came out at the end of last year. So it’s good to see that it’s been reissued. Where its predecessor was more heavily produced, with a vintage dub feel, this one juxtaposes rootsy reggae grooves with edgy, modal Ethiopiques vamps, often fleshed out with a rich, jazzy complexity by a polyglot cast of Ethiopian and British musicians. As with a lot of this stuff, the shadow of pioneering Ethiopian jazz composer Mulatu Astatke towers over this music. While this might be the last project you might expect to be spearheaded by Transglobal Underground founder Nick Page, he absolutely excels with it, not only as a reggae bassist but also as jazz guitarist and impressively dubwise producer. In case you’re wondering, this is about as far from dubstep as Lee “Scratch” Perry is.

The title cut sets the stage as it grows out of a pensive Samuel Yirga piano line to a swaying, intertwined Nerses Nalbandian style brass arrangement featuring the Horns of Negus. Much of the best Ethiopian music utilizes otherwordly, overtone-packed minor-key modes and this is a good example. The second track, Dub Will Tear Us Apart, is no relation to Joy Division – although Ian Curtis probably would have liked it, being a big reggae fan. This one blends noir tremolo guitars, Farfisa organ, melismatic vocals and swirly keys into a vortex of dub, then leaves it there.

Tringo Dub starts out with a brisk sway as the singer leads a call-and-response over a thinly disguised reggae beat that eventually hits a high with a trippy, staccato Joanna Popowicz piano solo. Yirga’s waterfalling, jazz-tinged piano lights up a slow, bolero-esque ballad sung plaintively by Tsedenia Gebremarkos Woldesilassie. The track after that blends Farfisa, loud rock guitar and a jaunty brass arrangement over a hypnotically circular triplet rhythm. They follow that with a darkly insistent funk tune and then a slow, bluestery noir groove that might be the album’s strongest track. The album winds up with a rustic song for krar harp spiced with light electronic dub flourishes, a haunting, slow reggae jam and then a lush, lively Ethiopian swing jazz piece.

There are also two covers here. The first is a faithful version of the Abyssinians’ Satta Massagana, where the irony of hearing an Ethiopian woman trade verses with crooner Mykaell S. Riley,  in a song written by Jamaicans who’d never left the island, manages not to get in the way. The other is an amusing Ethio dub version of Althea & Donna’s Uptown Top Ranking which is a lot rootsier than the original. As with this crew’s first album, there’s a spontaneity and intensity here that’s often missing from more reverential or derivative cross-cultural collaborations. Here’s hoping they keep this alive and make another album somewhere down the line.